Creatively Different: Embracing ‘Asian-ness’ in the advertising world

Art director, designer, and illustrator Grace Cho talks about the creative industry and how culture impacts her work.

Creatively Different is Cold Tea Collective‘s series on Asian professionals working in advertising, public relations, marketing, and creative fields and their experience as an Asian in their space. 

This interview-style series will focus on questions around the opportunities for Asians in this field, the challenges they may face, how cultural values has impacted their career, and how their upbringing is reflected in their work.

Immigrated to Vancouver, Canada from Korea when she was just 11 months old, Grace Cho is an art director, designer, and illustrator by trade — and currently an award-winning Associate Creative Director at Cossette, an advertising agency based in Canada. 

She is also a freelance illustrator whose work has been part of H&M Canada x Rethink Breast Cancer capsule collection, in support of young women living with breast cancer.

Cho chatted with Cold Tea Collective about her experience as a woman of colour working in an industry where Asians are traditionally rare, how her Korean heritage impacts her work, and how straddling two cultures is an advantage. 

Grace Cho Cossette
Photo submitted: Grace Cho

What made you choose the creative industry? 

I kind of fell into it. I was studying interaction design in university. The usual career path for people from my school is to go into UX or UI design, front end web, or service design, that kind of thing. But I was doing a semester for co-op and then I couldn’t find anything that interested me, so I just reached out on my own and then I found this internship at Cossette and then it just became freelance. And then it became full-time. So here I am.

Tell me about your field. Are Asians rare in the creative industry? 

When I first started, there weren’t any Asians on the creative team. Now, it’s gotten better but it’s still pretty rare to see Asian writers or art directors.

Why do you think this is the case? 

It’s a cultural thing. Asians in general are less exposed to these sorts of careers because it was a white, male-dominated industry in the previous generation. Our parents are not working in these industries in Canada so we have very little exposure to it as a culture. Growing up in Canada, it’s not considered a viable option and sometimes people don’t even know that it exists actually. 

Let’s talk a little bit about your work in particular. You are a designer, illustrator, and art director. How is your cultural upbringing expressed in your work? 

I think the main outlet are my illustrations, which are influenced subconsciously or consciously by my Korean heritage. I’m inspired by a lot of the imagery that is in traditional Korean art. I also like to get away from Eurocentric ideas of ideals of beauty in my art. I’m Asian. All the people I draw are Asian. They have characteristics that are not really seen in mass forms of art.

Grace Cho Cossette
Photo submitted: Grace Cho

In advertising agencies, what do people of Asian descent bring to the table?

It’s important that advertising in general has a wide variety of voices, Asian and otherwise. If you need to create work that speaks to the Canadian people, who are a diverse group, the people making the work should also look like what Canada looks like.

There is also the Asian cultural value of working together, being empathetic, and being honest. There’s a lot of integrity kind of built into the culture that comes in handy in the workplace. 

Do you feel there are missed opportunities where your unique perspective as a person of colour that the industry didn’t tap into? 

I do think that if you’re a female and you’re a female of colour, you are a visible minority in two ways. In straight white male dominated industry, I think you have to work way harder to get the same level of recognition. People in leadership positions are sometimes conditioned to think there’s only one way a certain role can look like, or what excellence looks like in a certain role, and those definitions can be quite narrow. It can be a bit tricky if you don’t fit directly into that mold. 

There is a certain type of personality that excels in this industry and if you don’t have that [personality], it can be quite challenging.

Have you felt the pressure (external or internal) to make yourself into that mold?

Oh, definitely. Some of it is good growth regardless, just being louder and taking up more space, which I think is a good thing as a visible minority. Being hyper confident, learning how to joke around with all manner of people, these are all valuable things. You’ll do better if you adapt to that style. If you’re a super quiet person who just keeps their head down and gets their work done, a lot of people may make comments like, “Oh, I feel I don’t know this person. They don’t really fit into the culture here.” 

Grace Cho Cossette
Photo submitted: Grace Cho

Do you think your difference in upbringing or cultural background is a competitive advantage or disadvantage compared to colleagues? 

I think it’s both. Having experienced what I’ve experienced makes me a more empathetic and well rounded person. It’s really interesting because then you’re able to work with a lot of different kinds of people.

But I feel like in the advertising industry as a whole, it’s pretty tough to be a visible minority. So even though it presents so many positives, it will inevitably work against you and your career. It’s just how it is.

It’s very deep rooted and hard to change the system. But more diversity and more representation in leadership positions are needed. The people who are making the big decisions need to be more varied. 

What do you think is the biggest challenge to being an Asian in the creative industry? 

It’s not that there’s something inherently wrong with Asian-ness. It’s just that the way that the systems are designed, they don’t favour Asian-ness or the qualities that sometimes can come with people. 

For example, and I’m just generalizing, but it could potentially be harder for someone from an Asian background to really be demanding for what they want and what they likely deserve. When it comes to demanding promotions and raises, they’re more humble about it. It’s hard for them to be aggressive about what they need, and they need to be aggressive. 

Is ‘Asian-ness’ a part of your work identity that you wear quite proudly? 

Super proudly. It’s really valuable to have experienced “otherness” because it makes you more empathetic to other kinds of “otherness”. I can be an ally for different people in the workplace because I know what it feels like to be actively discriminated against. It makes me more interested in putting forth different initiatives to make it more inclusive for LGBTQ2S+ individuals, for example. 

What is the importance of seeing someone with similar background in leadership positions?

It is immensely important because it opens the possibility in your brain of, “Oh, that’s an option for us, it’s not just reserved for a certain kind of person.” Whenever I see Asian females in leadership positions, I get a little thrill since it’s so rare. When I see someone like Judy John [Global Chief Creative Office, Edelman] or Lisa Nakamura [former Creative Director of Design, Cossette], it’s amazing to see, knowing how hard it is in these industries. 

Having those people in those [leadership] roles, normalizes it for the entire industry. The more visible leaders there are, it’s just accepted. It’s not a strange thing that people pause on every time. 

Grace Cho Cossette
Photo submitted: Grace Cho

What is your advice for those joining the industry as an Asian or visible minority? 

I am trying to mentor junior women of colour. It can be hard for them to ask for what they want, even if they deserve it. I try to encourage them to throw away this feeling of guilt and shame and just go for what they want very confidently and boldly.  Everyone else is doing it, they just don’t realize it. 

I know it’s hard. I empathize with that. It’s important to acknowledge that [the industry] is hard and it is harder for certain people. But you would be surprised by how much you can accomplish if you just keep going. Any job is challenging and if you just keep persevering, you can get to pretty great places. 

Last thoughts? 

For any young creators reading this — I want them to know that it’s actually an amazing thing to be able to straddle two cultures.

We have a very interesting perspective on life because we view it through this expanded lens. We need more people of colour and women of colour in this industry.

I’m excited that there are going to be more young Asian creatives going forward based on what I’m seeing. I hope that the industry can be slightly changed by the time they come to be more inclusive and more open to different perspectives. It already has changed compared to seven years ago when I started. 

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